Three things have become rather clear in Egypt. The first is that the military’s popular base in Egypt is extremely solid, despite the excessive and tremendous use of force against supporters of the deposed leader Mohammad Mursi. The second is that the pro-Mursi coalition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, will not disappear – and that it has very little resembling a political strategy, wrongly perceiving that the majority supports them. The third is that the pro-revolutionary groups and factions, that neither supports the vision of the Muslim Brotherhood nor the military, have a great deal of work to do. As of yet it’s not clear they’ve started thinking about what role they need to play.
The first two items have been written on at length. On the other hand, analysis covering the third issue seems to have slipped through the cracks somewhere. The “revolutionary camp” has either been ignored as non-existent, or portrayed as being part of the “other side.” For the pro-military faction this camp is essentially a “sleeper” camp for the Muslim Brotherhood. For the supporters of Mursi, they’re tacit apologists for the military regime. The truth is, they are neither but as of yet they do not seem to have decided quite what they are going to do next.
Those who supported the revolution and continue to agitate for progressive change in Egypt have always been in the minority.H.A. Hellyer
The clashes yesterday between pro-Mursi demonstrators and the security forces (as well as non-state, pro-military civilians) resulted in the death of at least 51 people– most, if not all, were from the pro-Mursi side (no police casualties were reported at the time of writing).
In a couple of days, it will be the anniversary of the Maspero massacre, where 28 people were killed in clashes with the military. As they did a year ago, pro-revolutionary activists, opposed to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, will go to Maspero in remembrance of those who fell in 2011. And just like then, no-one will have been brought to justice for their deaths.
The activists who go to remember those who fell at Maspero can’t claim that they have shifted the political tide in Egypt. It is not that they have been irrelevant since the initial 2011 January uprising – arguably, they have played the hardest role since then. Those who supported the revolution and continue to agitate for progressive change in Egypt have always been in the minority, and under Tantawi and Mursi they were always an irritatingly consistent force that insisted on the accountability of those in power. But at best they were kingmakers. Under this new government, they’re now teetering on political irrelevancy – and they are partially to blame for that.
On October the 6th, Armed Forces Day, those revolutionary activists did not go to protest in support of the military. Not surprisingly, they are apathetic to the political project of the state at large, to say the least. However, they also had no interest in joining the pro-Mursi protests, which to them represent an idea that is sufficiently dreadful that it ought not to warrant support. It is not that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are “equal,” for these activists – it is that both of their visions are sufficiently undeserving of support. But while they are principled in that kind of opposition, the question still remains: what alternative are they going to provide?
Time for action
It is a question that this camp has failed to adequately answer for the past three years and as a result, it is hardly surprising the Egyptian population at large has chosen to either support the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. The promise of the January 25th Tahrir uprising was a revolution – and it required a revolutionary political force that could give a vision that would convince a critical mass of Egyptians. This is not to say that support for the revolution was limited from those outside of politics but only the imagination of a small percentage of Egyptians was captured.
Some may argue that this is precisely what these revolutionary activists ought to be staying away from: participatory, election-based politics. Their position ought to be purely in the realm of other types of political action: lobbying, reliable journalism, civil rights activism and other such forms of political expression. They could be right but even those types of political activity require co-ordination and mutual support. Right now, it does not seem as though these forces have a strategy beyond: “we’re just going to stick to our principles.”
If all they want to do is to maintain their principles and work for them in their different fields of activity, rather than form political parties – well, that is entirely legitimate. But between the act of setting up political parties (which some claim they may set up) and remaining independent from each other, there are other ways to push for certain reforms in Egypt. To find out what those ways are, these forces require strategic thinking and they have to develop ways to communicate with each other. A possible forum for this purpose was recently launched, the “Front for the Revolutionary Path,” but, how will this impact public discourse, political developments and speak for the needs of the Egyptian people?
It seems that members of the revolutionary camp are waiting for some sort of political opening, after which they will be able to play a role. Almost subconsciously they seem to realise that as long as this political conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military is ongoing, there will be little room for the revolutionaries to achieve anything concrete. They won’t ally with either of those factions, but they have also not developed a strategy to ensure that if and when the public arena does eventually open up that they will be in the best position to encourage positive change.
Almost three years ago, a square in downtown Cairo gave birth to a movement that at its core had respect, pluralism, and human dignity. Throughout this transition, no one has been able to translate that movement into something that could be bought into by the Egyptian people. The movement needs to decide for itself, sooner rather than later, what its role ought to be, rather than allow itself to be overtaken by circumstance and events. This moment in Egypt’s history demands they find more effective methods to translate principles and ethics into action because Egypt deserves better than Maspero on the 9th of October 2011 and better than Giza on the 6th of October 2013; Egypt deserves Tahrir Square of January 25th 2011. If Egypt can’t have this, then it should have the best that activists can achieve.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer